China denies interest in retrieving sunken US fighter jet

The $100-million, state-of-the-art stealth aircraft crashed in the South China Sea on Monday.
2022.01.27
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China denies interest in retrieving sunken US fighter jet An F-35C Lightning II carrier variant joint strike fighter is prepared for launch aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68). The F-35 Lightning II is undergoing initial at-sea trials aboard Nimitz.
U.S. Navy video

China denied Thursday that it has any interest in recovering the wreckage of the crashed U.S. F-35C fighter jet that may contain sensitive technological information.

“We have no interest in their aircraft,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters, adding that Beijing urged “the country concerned to do things that are conducive to regional peace and stability, rather than flex muscles in the region.”

The U.S. Navy said earlier that it was working to recover the F-35C Lightning II fighter jet, a $100-million, state-of-the-art stealth aircraft, which crashed in the South China Sea on Monday.

The single-engine fighter skidded over the side while attempting to land on the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier during a training session and tumbled into the sea.

The pilot safely ejected and was recovered by a U.S. military helicopter.

Seven servicemen were injured in the accident that happened during a joint operation conducted by the USS Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln strike groups in the South China Sea. All the injured are in a stable condition.

The U.S. Navy is making recovery operations arrangements for the F-35C aircraft. A former U.S. Navy officer told RFA it could take anything from three weeks to four months to locate and haul the plane from the depths of the ocean.

 China is likely to be watching closely.

“They are interested but the announcement suggests they will not attempt to recover it if the U.S. chooses to do so,” said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii. 

“They don’t want to risk a confrontation or increase the already extensive Sino-U.S. frictions.”

Challenging task

“However, they will monitor the U.S. recovery and if they can do it surreptitiously, they will examine it with a submersible to gather what information they can,” said Schuster, who is also a former U.S. Navy captain.

“It is my belief that they have about 30-60 percent of what they need to know about the F-35 from their cyber-espionage efforts.  A good thorough survey would add to that,” he said.

 Some Chinese analysts believe that there’s another dimension to the crash.

“While China, and any other country, would certainly be interested in a closer look at the F-35 there is another issue that must be considered. That question is whether the plane was lost in China’s territorial waters,” asked Andy Mok, a well-known, Beijing-based commentator.

“If so, the U.S. will be in an awkward position as China would be entirely within its rights to not return it,” said Mok.

China insists that it holds “historical rights” to most of the South China Sea, and draws straight baselines around four groups of islands there to claim expansive territorial seas that are deemed illegal by international law.

Schuster said the recovery process could be protracted.

“I would think 20-60 days, depending on weather, currents, underwater conditions and PRC (China’s) activity.” 

“Under ideal conditions, you are looking at 10-20 days from finding to lifting.  Strong and unpredictable underwater currents, bad weather and other challenges or work interruptions add to the time.  Worse case, 90-120 days, if the monsoon hits,” he told RFA.

“The U.S. has demonstrated the capability to recover aircraft from 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) and the South China Sea’s deepest point is 16,000-feet (4,876-meters) deep. So, the challenge is to find it, then send the equipment to lift it off the bottom and bring it to the surface,” Schuster explained.

“China will be watching in any case, to learn what they can; about the plane perhaps but definitely about how to recover a 70,000-pound (35-ton) aircraft from several thousand feet.” 

From Beijing, the views are more dismissive.

“This incident is only the latest in a string of mishaps that only raise more questions about U.S. military readiness,” said Mok, the security analyst.

The 7th Fleet spokeswoman Cmdr. Hayley Sims told the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes on Wednesday that the U.S. Navy is currently investigating the F-35C crash together with four other serious “Class A” mishaps involving aircraft assigned to the USS Carl Vinson carrier that occurred between Nov. 22 and Dec. 31.

A “Class A mishap” is an incident either involving loss of life or permanent disability, or the complete loss of an aircraft or property damage of $2.5 million or more, according to the U.S. Navy.

All five incidents remain under investigation, said Sims.

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